Charisms and the Methodist approach to Christian Ministry

Recent ecumenical dialogue has turned to the theology of charisms as a way of building a common approach to Christian ministry.  As the landmark text Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) puts it:

the Holy Spirit bestows on the community diverse and complementary gifts. These are for the common good of the whole people and are manifested in acts of service within the community and to the world. They may be gifts of communicating the gospel in word and deed, gifts of healing, gifts of praying, gifts of teaching and learning, gifts of serving, gifts of guiding and following, gifts of inspiration and vision. All members are called to discover, with the help of the community, the gifts they have received and to use them for the building up of the Church and for the service of the world to which the Church is sent (§M5).

The benefit of this approach is that it both a) grounds Christian ministry in the activity of God (because the Spirit gives the gifts which enable the various ministries) and b) grounds the theology of ordained ministry in the broader context of the ministry of the whole people of God (since the gifts are given to all, and therefore all are given a vocation to ministry).

I would argue that this consensus that has emerged regarding the theology of ministry comports well with the approach to ministry that has been practised in the Methodist tradition throughout its history.  This approach involved candidates proceeding through various orders of ministry, beginning at the local level, depending on the evidence of their gifts as seen by the community of faith. The early Methodist tradition followed a “bottom-up” pattern of discerning gifts for ministry, in which “local preachers” were chosen to assist in preaching and teaching the gospel in one location, and local preachers who showed evidence of gifts chosen to serve as “helpers.” “Assistants” were chosen from among the helpers, to assist Wesley in the oversight of a given circuit of Methodist Societies (hence their title was changed to “Superintendent” after Wesley’s death).   That was the basic track to what would later become ordination.  Beyond that, there were other important roles, such as that of the class leader, who basically acted as a pastor and spiritual director to the members of their neighbourhood small group.

This bottom-up approach to ministry makes particular sense when considered from the perspective of oversight.  Charisms are not self-authenticating, and they need to be discerned in the context of Christian community.  Each charism is interdependent, and in a sense is limited by the other charisms, like the parts of the body are interdependent and limited by their relation with other parts of the body.  Among the gifts is the gift of oversight, and those who have this particular charism are called to help others in the community discern and faithfully exercise their own gifts.

All of this best takes place in the local Christian context, where people know each other and can see each one living out their gifts in the context of the body of Christ.  So, first and foremost, the discernment of a call to any kind of ministry, including the role of pastor or teacher, should begin at the grassroots level.

Now, the fact of the matter is that the Methodist approach to ministry did not develop on the basis of an extended theological reflection on the gifts of the Spirit.  It was not even the result of thoughtful planning.  Rather it emerged, as Henry Rack says, through “a series of accidents and improvisations” (Reasonable Enthusiast, 237).  Wesley improvised the order of his movement in response to the needs of the time, believing that matters of church order were subservient to the church’s mission:

“What is the end of all ecclesiastical order?  Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God?  And to build them up in his fear and love?  Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not it is nothing worth” (Letter to “John Smith,” June 25, 1746, in The Works of John Wesley, 26:206). 

In spite of Wesley’s “improvisational” approach, I would argue that the process that emerged is in fact quite consistent with a New Testament approach to gifts and ministries, and with the ecumenical consensus on these issues that has emerged in the past few decades.  Perhaps this was one of the ways in which divine providence was shaping the Methodist movement during its early years.

Pastors as wannabe executives

There’s a really interesting post here from Dave Fitch, entitled “Stuck between Mohler and McLaren.”   By coincidence I was reading through his chapter on “Leadership” in The Great Giveaway yesterday, which covers some similiar ground.    At first I thought he was referencing Johann Adam Möhler, and I was really intrigued…but it’s Al Mohler (less interesting to me personally, but much more representative of the contemporary church!).

The thesis in this chapter of The Great Giveaway is that the contemporary pastorate has capitulated to models of leadership found in the business world, which are fundamentally oriented toward “effectiveness” in getting results, rather than on faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  This leads to conflict resolution strategies that are high handed and autocratic.  The pastor needs to decide on a solution in order for the ministry to maintain its effectiveness (which usually means numerical growth).   If people don’t get on board, they are standing in the way of the “success” of the ministry.

I’m really connecting with what Fitch has to say, as it sums up and connects some ideas that have been rolling around in my head for some time.   Most books on Christian leadership are simply parroting the latest trendy ideas from the world of management.   What’s worse is that they throw in the odd scripture verse and “spiritualize” the ideas they’re selling, which means that the pastors who buy this stuff are taking that back to their churches believing that they’ve got divine authority on their side as they try to implement these so-called “biblical” strategies.   Not that insights from the business world have absolutely no value.  They might be helpful as tools to aid in Church leadership, if used selectively within a larger biblical and theological framework.  But they should not have the defining role that they have in the contemporary evangelical world.  So whether it’s “mission statements,” “visioning,” “strategic planning,” or more recently, “branding,” churches are embracing contemporary management techniques wholeheartedly as if they were gospel truth.   People who don’t get on board then are “problems” to be managed (at best), or (at worst) hinderances to the Spirit.   If it seems like I’m exaggerating here, I’m not.  I know a person who was told that their practical questions about church finance were “of the devil.” 

For all the diversity of contemporary Canadian society, it seems like we’re getting worse at handling conflict in our churches.  Everywhere you look there is  a local congregation that is being torn apart by some scandal or another.   Perhaps it is (as Fitch suggests in his book) connected to the individualistic outlook  of modernity, which encourages each one of us to think that we are completely autonomous centres of decision-making power, and that each one of us must arbitrate for ourselves between competing truth claims.   The locus of authority, for modernity, is the reasoning self, and the presumption is that “reason” will lead us to the truth through the exercise of our intellectual faculties.  Of course this is a bit of a charicature, but it pretty much sums up the way it works on a practical level.  And perhaps that has something to do with the interminable splintering of denominations and congregations in modern protestantism.   If we all believe that we ourselves are the final arbiters of truth in matters of dispute, then why would we back down when faced with an opposing view?

The question is whether postmodern understandings of self, truth, and knowledge move us any closer to a more healthy resolution of these problems.   It would seem that postmodern sensibilities are helpful in de-bunking the conflict-ridden assumptions of modernist epistemology, but not as helpful in offering constructive solutions.   No one person can claim a certain enough hold on truth to impose it upon an entire community.  So people of my generation are less likely to get hot under the collar about a dispute within our local church, thinking that we’re the ones who’ve got the “true” answer.  But then again, we might just stop caring at all, and become apathetic in the face of conflict, as it would seem as if no final resolution is possible.  What is needed is a normative standard to replace the reasoning autonomous self.  The standard may not be “universal” in the way that some moderns claimed “reason” was universal, but it can nevertheless be authoritative within the community for whom it is adopted.  

What I like about Fitch’s approach is that he always finds his way back to biblical depictions of church life as the normative standard.   So in the post referenced above, the answer to conflict in the Church is based on Matthew 18.   What is shocking about this model is that so few churches actually try to live this out.  We turn instead to the world of management theory and dress it up in spiritual language as if that were the “biblical” way of being Church.  Why is this?  Has the model that Fitch upholds been tried and found wanting?  Not in my experience.  More likely it is the fact that is just plain messy and “inefficient,” and therefore doesn’t fit with the corporate approach to leadership that we’ve embraced.

The purpose of theological education

There’s a nice post from Ben Myers over at Faith & Theology on the purpose of theological education, which includes the following:

“What the church really needs is not cleverer or more relevant or more professional ministers, but women and men who know how to pray and how to bear witness. Nothing could be simpler; nothing more demanding. For true prayer and witness spring only from a life that has been formed in the way of discipleship – the way of Jesus Christ.”

What a great way of summing up the purpose of theological education.  But most people, including many who have had theological education, don’t see it this way.  Those training for ministry often struggle to integrate academic study into their faith.   I remember friends talking about this in seminary.  I’ve seen it in students that I’ve TAed for.  I’ve also heard some cadets from CFOT talk along the same lines.   Why is it that students have a hard time making the connections between the theological disciplines and the life of faith?   I think it is partly due to the fact that popular Christian culture is so ahistorical and anti-intellectual.  On the other hand, theological scholarship has gone the way of increasing specialization (along with other academic disciplines), to the point that many theologians spend most of their time communicating with a small circle of friends who are interested in the same obscure topics.  Philip Clayton recently posted a video on his website criticizing academic theology (including his own work) for this very reason. He may exaggerate a bit but the main point is valid. The kinds of discourse we encounter in our local church are so far removed from academic discourse that it becomes hard reconcile the two, so a lot people veer off in one direction or the other.   

How do we get beyond this?  Obviously there are people we could look to, say scholars who write for general audiences, like NT Wright, or pastors who put great effort into upholding theological integrity in their ministry, like David Fitch.    Students could probably put a little more effort into trying to integrate scholarship and faith, and teachers could certainly make an effort to show how theological questions are related to situations in the life of the Church.  I also think it reinforces the need for doing historical theology, and teaching doctrine from a historical perspective.   Why?  Because most of the great theologians in the history of the Church were pastors and leaders, and they wrote in response to real problems that were arising in the life of the Church as it struggled to live out its vocation in the world.  

Any other thoughts?  As an academic whose deeply concerned about strengthening the connections between scholarship and everyday Christian life, I’m open to suggestions.